Despite the sunny autumn weather here, it’s a dark day for pop culture.
After 31 years of operation, the Liberace Museum will close its doors and lock up for good. Sorry, the chance to cross off that museum on your life’s To-Do list is over.
The Powers That Be at the Liberace Foundation attribute a sluggish economy and lack of visitors as the primary reasons for shutting down. Consolation for this devastating dismissal of Americana are vague promises of a “Liberace Tour” and “Re-opening at a more opportune time and place”.
Well I am not sure what this board considers a more opportune place than Las Vegas for an act like Liberace. Unfortunately, closing it at this time will most likely end forever any lingering thought or memory of a man who paved the way for the likes of Elvis, David Bowie, Grace Jones, Madonna, Prince, Adam Lambert and Lady Gaga.
Wladziu Valentino Liberace, born May 16, 1919 is better known by only his last name Liberace, hit his stride when the entertainment industry what turning from radio to television. During the 1950s–1970s he was the highest-paid entertainer in the world. He began his musical career at age seven in classical piano and was quite promising as a child but was received as mediocre at best as an adult in the classical piano circuit so he branched off into his own type of performance which he described as, “classical music with the boring parts left out.”
Liberace rocket ship to fame and world-wide appeal was the very bone of contention that excluded him from acceptance in the classical world. Rather than slaving to perfect his form and technique, used flair and showmanship to appeal to a much wider audience. He played serious music but didn’t allow himself to take it seriously–what a relief!
Music critics were generally harsh in their assessment of his so-so talent. Critic Lewis Funke wrote Liberace’s music “must be served with all the available tricks, as loud as possible, as soft as possible, and as sentimental as possible. It’s almost all showmanship topped by whipped cream and cherries.” Serious music critics viewed his lack of reverence to the great composers as an insult and an assault to classic aficionados. “Liberace recreates—if that is the word—each composition in his own image. When it is too difficult, he simplifies it. When it is too simple, he complicates it”. His sloppy technique included “slackness of rhythms, wrong tempos, distorted phrasing, an excess of prettification and sentimentality, a failure to stick to what the composer has written”.
While most of us would hide in shame at such critical barbary of our life’s passion, Liberace took every critical remark and made a show of the very tricks that so irked the serious music world.
It may not say much for the musical appreciation of a more serious nature in America, Liberace had his finger on the pulse of what mid 20th century America wanted: entertainment!
Entertain he did! With glitz and flash, humor and heart, he was a show-off of luxury and excess but pulled it off with incredible flair. Instead of barricading himself off from the rest of us, he reached out, laughed at himself, winked at his mistakes and pulled faces at the camera during the most serious parts of his musical pieces. His fans could relax because he understood that so much of classical music is difficult to understand but should no means be restricted.
I understand now that his flair and style left his personal preferences under scrutiny but all I saw as a kid was this fabulously glamorous star winking and grinning while he played serious piano in glittering tuxedos and feather boas. Every finger on each hand had a two-pound, gem encrusted ring. Even his shoes glittered! My father usually left the room when Liberace came on but we kids and my mother were glued to the television, mesmerized.
Growing up in the 1970’s, it seemed every Grandma, Meme and Yaya had a collection of Liberace Albums. Women of a certain age had The Best of Liberace, Ave Maria, Here’s Liberace! and The Very Best of Liberace. A couple of younger minded grannies had the newer, really cool rainbow lettering Liberace Now! where he was wearing an understated turtleneck and bell bottoms. One of the greatest surprise finds at my Italian friend’s grandmother’s house was the Liberace in a Bubble Bath album hidden behind Tony Allen Sings!. She threw us outside when she caught us laughing at it. Needless to say, his Christmas albums were also a big part of their holiday season.
Liberace opened his museum in 1978 and filled it with his pianos, cars, jewelry, costumes, his cookbooks and photos with just about every star, politician, royal and dignitary from 1940 to 1987. It has been well attended and self-sufficient (those Grammies, Nanas, Memes and Yayas LOVE to see their Liberace!)despite being unfortunately placed more than two miles off The Strip. There are no official plans for displaying any of the museum pieces in another venue, nor are there any Liberace Lives! tours on the horizon. The Liberace Foundation which disseminates scholarships to promising young musicians will continue for the time being.